Washington (AFP) June 14, 2009
US and South Korean leaders meet Tuesday to coordinate action in an escalating showdown with North Korea, with President Barack Obama expected to try to reassure the US ally of security commitments.
President Lee Myung-Bak's visit to Washington was planned well ahead of the North Korea crisis and aimed in part at smoothing out relations after Obama in his campaign rejected a hard-negotiated free-trade deal with Seoul.
The global economic crisis, which has hit South Korea hard, is also expected to be on the agenda between the two nations whose alliance has dramatically broadened in recent years to include working together on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama "looks forward to exploring ways in which the two countries can strengthen cooperation on the regional and global challenges of the 21st century," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.
But North Korea is set to take center-stage after the hardline communist state tested a nuclear bomb and long-range missile and stormed out of a six-nation disarmament agreement.
The UN Security Council voted unanimously Friday to toughen sanctions on North Korea, leading some experts and officials to fear Pyongyang will carry out another nuclear test in retaliation.
Lee, who starts his talks Monday meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has enraged the impoverished North by refusing aid without progress in the nuclear and other rows -- reversing a decade of liberal policies by Seoul.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal ahead of the trip, the South Korean president stressed the importance of the six-party talks that include the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia and aim to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
"Our ultimate objective is to try to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, but we must also ask ourselves: What do the North Koreans want in return for giving up their nuclear weapons program?" he said. "I think this is the type of discussion that the five countries should be engaging in now, robustly."
Victor Cha, who was former president George W. Bush's top aide on Pyongyang, said he did not think there was "any daylight between President Lee and President Obama in terms of North Korea.
"As a former negotiator, I have to tell you that is music to our ears because that wasn't always the case," said Cha, now at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think-tank.
Quoting official sources in Seoul, Yonhap news agency said Obama -- who advocates abolishing nuclear weapons -- would publicly reaffirm the US nuclear umbrella in Asia amid jitters in both South Korea and fellow US ally Japan.
South Korea gave up work on nuclear weapons in the 1970s under US pressure, and Lee answered, "at this moment, no, absolutely not," when asked by The Journal whether South Korea considered developing its own nuclear deterrent.
The United States has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea and commands joint forces on guard against North Korea, which has 1.1 million army soldiers.
Washington plans to hand operational command to South Korea in 2012.
Cha predicted Obama and Lee would confirm the date, despite calls by some conservatives in the two countries to look at pushing it back due to the crisis with North Korea.
While North Korea has been a headache for both countries, they may nonetheless find it easier to agree about Pyongyang than about trade.
"In some sense, it could be the elephant in the room when the two presidents meet," said Steven Schrage, an expert on international business at CSIS.
Negotiators completed a draft deal in 2007 that would be the biggest US free-trade accord since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, with Canada and Mexico.
Yet Obama as a candidate said the deal was flawed. US lawmakers, who need to ratify the agreement for it to come into force, are pushing for South Korea to give more access to US beef and cars.
South Korea's leaders see the agreement as crucial for an economy stuck between giants Japan and China, but it triggered massive street protests in Seoul led by activists who questioned the safety of US beef.
"I think we'll hear nice things about the Korea FTA and the trade agenda," he said. "The real danger is just strategic drift," Schrage said.
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NKorea's Kim praises military amid nuclear standoff
Seoul (AFP) June 14, 2009
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has heaped praise on the military as his country defies United Nations sanctions by vowing to increase its nuclear arsenal, state media said Sunday. Kim highly praised the 7th Infantry Division's "militant training spirit and set forth the tasks for increasing its combat ability in every way," the communist state's official news agency reported. It did not ... read more
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